The other day, my wife and I were half-listening to our 16-year-old daughters when we heard that a boy they knew had wanted to ask a girl to prom, but couldn't figure out how to stage it. I stupidly asked what they were talking about. (I always know when I ask a stupid question by their facial expressions, which start with a blank look that then switches to a slow, annoyed eye-roll. Then it goes back to a blank look, just to make sure I understand how dumb I am.)
"Dad," one of them said, "a boy can't just ask, he has to ask 'cute'!"
Turns out, in today's increasingly bizarre and convoluted world of teendom, a teenage boy can't just ask a girl to a dance anymore. He is now required to come up with an elaborate scenario to show that he's put in the work.
A "cute" ask must combine creativity and sensitivity. It has to be the kind of ask that will make her girlfriends will say "Awwww!" Examples include making a cake with the question written out in the icing, delivering a pizza with "Prom?" written in pepperoni, or a scavenger hunt leading to a personal invitation. A boy could also put up signs in a girl's yard or write on her car in car paint. One kid I read about rented a plane and had the question spelled out in giant letters across the school parking lot. The point is, it has to be public and impressive. It's almost as important as the dance itself.
When I was in high school, I had my own technique for asking a girl to a dance. I'd call her up, and even though I'd never called her before, I'd try to make small talk, as if I just sat around all day phoning girls. I'd ask how she was and what was going on at her house, all while, on the other end of the line, I'm sure the girl was looking at her parents like a scared mime, mouthing, "HELP ME, PLEASE!" She'd be panicking because she'd know just as much as I did that all this smooth small talk was just cover. I was going to pop the question — and when I did, it was in a halting, strange way that's hard to describe unless you were there. Imagine being asked to homecoming by the Unabomber.
Some girls these days will still accept a normal old-fashioned invitation, but they then advise that the acceptance is conditional, based on later approval of the official cute invitation. (Approval is a formal process, as cute asks are posted on Facebook and reviewed by a committee of girlfriends.)
I think this trend was actually started on YouTube, where a boy posted a video in which he asked a girl to prom by performing a song in the middle of a high school hallway. A million teenage girls watched the video, said "Awwww!" and then growled, "I want that!" A craze was born, and teenage boys across the country were suddenly subjected to a new requirement in life: You don't ask a girl to prom; you audition.
It's the teenage equivalent of the Australian bowerbird, which builds an impressive display to attract females. The male spends an extraordinary amount of time gathering leaves, twigs, feathers, berries and colorful stones and then mounts it all onto something, like a Rose Parade float. If his bower is found lacking, he needs to find a hobby.
All of this, of course, is part of a larger trend. Prom used to be in the high school gym, with balloons and streamers. Now it's so over the top that the top has to be redefined each year. Prom is now at a hotel, and kids arrive in stretch limos. When I was in high school, girls dressed for prom like ... prom queens. Today, the line of girls in their dresses sometimes looks like a casting call for a Las Vegas show most high school boys wouldn't be old enough to see, unless they had a driver's license listing their name as "Mr. Papagiorgio."
I feel for boys today. I barely got the "asking" part down, let alone mastering the "cute" part. In this brave new world, where an ask is graded on a 10-point scale and distributed to friends far and wide, I wouldn't survive. Instead, I'd probably just withdraw from society and spend prom night alone, wondering in an aggravated way whether everyone else was having a good time.
And that, I'm pretty sure, is how the Unabomber got into trouble.
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